In the 1990s and early 2000s, few American politicians were more conservative than Jeb Bush.
But a decade later, as Bush is “actively” exploring a presidential bid in 2016, an inescapable narrative about his potential candidacy is that he’s the moderate in the emerging Republican field — perhaps even too moderate to win the party’s nomination.
So how did a man who referred to himself as a “head-banging conservative” during his first gubernatorial campaign earn the suspicion of so many within his own party?
One possible explanation: Today’s Republican Party has changed more than Jeb Bush has. Especially on the issues of immigration reform and Common Core education standards.
Consider Bush’s positions and actions during his two terms as Florida governor:
- He opposed abortion and even declared, “I’m probably the most pro-life governor in modern times” after signing legislation in 2003 that allowed – controversially – Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube to be reinserted, despite her husband’s wishes
- He cut taxes and supported gun rights;
- He eliminated affirmative-action policies for university admissions and state hiring;
- And when asked how a welfare mother could survive without public assistance, he suggested that she either get a job or get a husband.
Those positions make it hard to compare Bush to past GOP centrists like Nelson Rockefeller, Rudy Giuliani or even Jon Huntsman.
“On issue after issue, Jeb’s track record in Florida pushed conservatism’s envelope to the breaking point,” S.V. Dáte, who covered Bush’s governorship, recently wrote for Politico.
Defending immigration reform and Common Core
Today, Bush splits from some members of his own party on two key issues – immigration and Common Core – that once had more Republican support than they do today.
On immigration, Bush – whose wife is Mexican-American – supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. And last year, he even said that many who come to America illegally do so out of “an act of love.”
“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony,” he said at a celebration of his father’s presidency last year. “It’s an act of love, an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think it’s a different kind of crime.”
Bush’s older brother, George W. Bush, also supported comprehensive immigration reform during his presidency, but was unsuccessful in passing legislation into law.
On education, the younger Bush vigorously defends the Common Core education standards, which increasingly have become anathema among many conservatives – even if prominent Republican governors and politicians once supported them.
“I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country,” he said last year, per the New York Times.
According to a CNN/ORC poll released last month, 38 percent of Republican voters said they’d be less likely to support Bush for backing the Common Core curriculum, versus 20 percent who’d be more likely to support him; another 39 percent said it made no difference.
The same poll showed 42 percent of GOP voters saying they’d be less likely to support Bush after calling illegal immigration an “act of love,” compared with 20 percent who said they’d be more likely to support him.
And a December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found just 29 percent of Republican respondents believing that immigration helps rather than hurts the United States – versus 66 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of independents who say that.
Rating the Republicans
What’s more, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver recently created a score that rates current and past Republican presidential candidates based, in part, on statements and voting records. And it gave Jeb Bush a score of 37 (with “0” being the most liberal and “100” the most conservative).
By comparison, Mitt Romney (39), John McCain (39) and George W. Bush (46) all had more conservative scores than Jeb Bush.
And here’s the kicker, according to that rating system: The average score for a Republican member in the 113th Congress (2013-2014) was 51, while it was just 30 back in the 96th Congress (1979-1980).
How Bush can still win the GOP nomination
But that doesn’t mean Bush is incapable of winning the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, far from it.
“People often forget that winning and losing presidential campaigns is about a whole lot more than ‘Is this person philosophically in sync with the base?’” says GOP political consultant Liz Mair. “It is about money – and if he runs, Jeb will have a lot of it. It’s about experience being in the political spotlight… It’s about actually knowing some stuff about policy and being able to communicate it.”
Republican strategist Brian Walsh also argues that supporters of immigration reform in conservative states – think Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. – won their Senate primaries in 2014. And they did so by running smart and well-financed campaigns.
“When [GOP voters] take a close look at Bush’s record, they will see that he has been a consistent conservative,” Walsh says.
But he adds that winning a presidential primary contest – especially as one as deep as the 2016 GOP field promises to be – is never easy.
“There is no question that people in both parties will have to navigate the primary waters first and foremost,” he says.